By Mallory Tober
How many of you have heard about AmeriCorps VISTA? I really didn’t know very much about the program until I became a VISTA, so I am going to assume that you all are in the same boat.
AmeriCorps is a federally funded corporation that provides volunteers to serve at nonprofit organizations around the country. VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), FEMA Corps (Federal Emergency Management Agency), and City Year are just of few of the AmeriCorps programs that currently have active volunteers in the United States. Like our overseas counterpart, the Peace Corps, the goal of AmeriCorps is to help the communities we serve overcome poverty.
There are many ways to approach the issue of poverty in our communities. For example, there are direct service programs, like City Year, where volunteers work as teachers in struggling school districts. Some, such as FEMA Corps, are aimed at providing support following an incident (such as a natural disaster) that has suddenly left many without access to important resources.
VISTA is all about capacity building. Nonprofit organizations (like St. Vincent de Paul) apply to the federal government for a VISTA grant, which includes access to a full-time volunteer to carry out the goals and terms of the grant. The VISTA receives a small stipend and other types of financial support (including access to health care, child care, and food stamps) in order to serve full-time at their organization.
Many people are surprised to learn that VISTA members do not carry out direct service. This worked out pretty well for me (I love children and want to provide them with what they need to grow into the best humans they can be) but managing large numbers of them is definitely not my thing.
But why wouldn’t VISTA want volunteers to work directly with the population they are serving?
The key is that the goal of a VISTA is to implement sustainable programs that can be maintained for years, or even decades, after their service ends. Long-term program development takes hours of research, thousands of phone calls, and pages and pages of documentation.
Now think about the nonprofit organizations that you love. Isn’t there always something that needs to be taken care of immediately? Whether it is 40 kids bouncing off the walls in the gym, loads of clothing donations waiting to be sorted, or 100 packets of seeds that need to be in the ground before the rain hits, there is always something that needs to be done. If VISTA members spent all their time putting out these (hopefully metaphorical) fires, then when would they have time to apply for the grant to make the building fire proof?
So what does being a VISTA look like at SVDP? There are three VISTA members this year. We all have slightly different jobs that are related to supporting the Family Success Center. Jessie works on Programming. She contacts local organizations and schedules enrichment courses for the children in the after-school and summer programs. Chris applies for grants and organizes fundraisers to provide financial and material support for the Family Success Center (or FSC). I especially like the series of “foodraisers” he has organized because it gives me an excuse to eat at restaurants with delicious food! As the Marketing and Communications VISTA, it is my job to show the public how great our programs are and to bring in volunteers and organizations that want to partner with us.
If we do our jobs right, these positions won’t be around for long. After all… sustainability is ALWAYS the ultimate goal. We will know that we have succeeded as volunteers if someday the Family Success Center has the capacity to maintain services without assistance from outside the community.